Denizens of darkness

Denizens of darkness

No longer in the womb of Nilgiris, about 600 Irula tribal families have been made to resettle. Here are the changes in their lifestyle

Muniraj, the tribal head

I become familiar with the term Irula a decade back during my trip to Ooty and the surrounding Nilgiris. Now, I have to meet the Keystone Foundation, which works with the tribals to help bring sustainability to their traditional crafts.

The tribes Irula, Kurumbar and Thodar are the true inhabitants and keepers of these mountains.

The ethereal beauty of the dry, harvested expanse of bamboo forests that fringe the roads from Aiyur Forest Guest House to Kodikkarai have taken my breath away. Beyond that lie the hutments of the Irula tribe.

We’ve crossed the enchanting watering hole of elephants (Aiyur Forests are part of the elephant reserve) without spotting a single one. “The magic of the rains. There’s enough water available inside the forests,” says Samappa the forest guard, who’s hitching a ride with us from Hosur. He is busy on the line with the Irula chief, Muniraj, arranging a meeting for us.

The Irula tribe belongs to the six primitive tribal communities of Tamil Nadu — the others being Kurumbar, Thodar, Paniyan, Kattunayakan and Kothar.
The term Irula is derived from the word ‘Irul’ meaning darkness, hence Irulas means ‘people of the dark’.

They are accustomed to living deep inside the forests, and are supposed to be endowed with great eyesight, which might be the result of being habituated to darkness.

They are snake and rat catchers, and are used to sourcing forest produce, tubers such as maravalli kizhangu, greens, honey and herbs for their livelihood.

They also worked on farms as farm hands for daily wages or as bonded labour for the Lingayat community during sowing and harvesting seasons.

They were never seen outside the woods, shying away from contact with outsiders.

Community life

Now with the efforts of the Forest Department and government initiatives, they are being integrated gradually into mainstream. Basic pucca community houses have been built for them in Kodikkarai outskirts, where about 600 Irula families live. These are certainly far from ideal, but a beginning has been made.

They speak the Irula tongue, a Dravidian language, a variant of Tamil. The script is Tamil. The numbers had dwindled to about 600-700, but have now risen to around 3,500.

Muniraj and his family. 

The picturesque, intensely verdant mountain-scape around us is a feast for the eyes.

Samappa keeps us entertained with his free-flowing chatter. He is well-versed with the countryside. The tarred roads, Samappa says, are about six months old. Accessibility is of vital importance.

Meeting the head

Muniraj is articulate and aware, and speaks fluent Tamil. He explains in detail the government schemes and the initiatives of the Forest Department. He says they have been coaxed to leave the forests and a life of survival, and have been introduced to the civilisation.

The Irulas in this area were cut off from civilisation until 2004, living off the tubers, roots and greens in the forests. The change in food and habitat, and moving away from tribal practices and adapting to the mainstream hasn’t worked out on all fronts.

Primary education is available. Muniraj says they send both boys and girls to school. The teachers come all the way from Kodikkarai.

Now, a state bus arrives once at 9 am and then at 2.30 pm. Children who have completed higher classes like 8th and 9th standard teach the younger ones.

A college will come up soon, he says with a note of hope in his voice.


Other than daily labour as farm hands (on a daily wage of Rs 100), the ones with masonry training (under building contractors) go to nearby Denkanikottai, Anchetty, Hosur or even Bengaluru to work in construction projects and earn double than that. Throughout the walk through the village, we have a horde of curious children following us. We feel like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Several photographs are taken. Today is Sunday and there is no school. An Anganwadi provides midday meal, including eggs, to the children, Muniraj says.

The road ahead

There is no hospital. Doctor visits are rare. For small ailments, the tribals use their age-old herbal cures. For serious ailments, they go to the nearby town. Cost of living has made it difficult for them to have more than two meals a day. Their staple is ragi; bamboo rice used to be a mainstay too, but with the knowledge of its being regulatory of blood sugar, it is sold in the markets in cities and fetches a good price.

Bamboo rice, the staple of the community. Photos by author 

How do you compare your life now with yours earlier in the forests? Muniraj, says, “Longevity was greater. People lived up to 80 and 90 years. Now, they have access to modern medicine, but diseases like TB have taken over due to lifestyle changes.” Early marriages were the rule, but not anymore. And inter-marriages between relatives was common. These bind them together and the entire village, where 600 families live, are connected via marriages to each other.

Now the circle has begun to expand and a few (and far between) cross- community marriages between Irulas and Lingayats have happened. Family-planning has taken root. Having six-10 children was the rule. Now it is two-four.

Muniraj is 42 years old and his wife Rajamma, who at the age of 37 is already a grandmother to two, is herself the mother of six.

As we sit on the neatly swept mud floor of their little brick house, we are surrounded by the whole clan consisting of Muniraj's children, grandchildren, his brother's children and grandchildren.

As we part ways, Muniraj points out to the small plots of land on the hillsides where they grow their ragi... "We don’t own them, but we can grow our crop and harvest it for our use," he says.

"We don't own them," he repeats gently. I am reminded that those forests belonged to them once.

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